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A Square of Life


In the Rainer Werner Fassbinder biography by Robert Katz and Peter Berling, Love is Colder than Death, the writers note that 1969’s Katzelmacher “cost eighty thousand marks, and though it went relatively unrewarded at the box-office, it earned Rainer nearly a million marks in prizes and state subsidies. He was now very much in business.”

Business mattered to the prolific Fassbinder, yet not especially out of conventional greed; more it seems unconventional need, a theme vital to many of his films. Thomas Elsaesser says in an essay in Fassbinder (ed. Tony Rayns) “Fassbinder’s furious rate of production is at least in part a reaction against the constraints which the precarious financial circumstances of independent film-making force upon him.” By making film after film, and sometimes in the early seventies several a year, Fassbinder could keep what amounted to a repertory company: “If I make a feature film where there are no salaries paid, the people working for me know with absolute certainty that next month, for another story of mine, there will be money.” However, behind the practicalities lay contrary emotional necessity. As Christian Braad Thomsen says in Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, “Fassbinder’s fear of dependency was as great as his fear of loneliness. He constantly tried to ward off loneliness by surrounding himself with groups that he constantly broke up when he felt others’ dependence on him a burden.”

Katzelmacher (adapted from Fassbinder’s own play) is as good an example as any early Fassbinder film from the angle of low-budget repertory cinema. Premiered no more than three months after his previous and first feature, Love is Colder than Dead, the film used some of the same actors and crew from the earlier one: Hanna Schygulla, Irm Herrmann, Hans Hirschmuller, and cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann and composer Peer Raben. Yet it was also as though Fassbinder was laying out his own problematic that would create a certain vicious circle. This is the contemptibility of the familiar, of seeing the same faces over and over again and simultaneously needing this presence and despising it. “I think we are made in such a way that we need other human beings, but…” a character says in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, “we have not learned how to be together” It is as if there was something in those early Fassbinder films – films like Love is Colder than Death, Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, where Fassbinder wanted to experiment in form, finance, feeling and aesthetics as he mused over the need both to belong and to feel contempt towards the necessity of that belonging.

Now, of course, Katzelmacher is also a film about immigration; alluded to in the title which is derogatory slang for a guest worker and has connotations of sexual promiscuity. Here a Greek comes to live and work in this small town, staying as a lodger in the house of a couple, part of a group of friends who hang out. Yet more especially the film is about the contempt of the habitual as much as of difference, with the problem lying in a certain familiarity breeding contempt towards others. Described by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film as a parametric film, “one in which the film’s stylistic system creates patterns distinct from the demands of the syuzhet [plot] system”, there is little doubt that Fassbinder’s work is a film of formal precision as it works chiefly off single fixed frame shots punctuated with a handful of tracking shots, but it is also a film formally contained if not by the demands of its plot then surely by the necessity of its theme. Here are characters caught between social familiarity and emotional yearning, between having friends and needing change. The formal becomes the thematically suggestive, as Fassbinder’s fixed frames indicate emotional constraint; the occasional reverse tracking shots a desire for something else and something more. “It is better to make new mistakes than repeat the old ones to the point of unconsciousness,” goes Yaak Karsunke’s opening quote.

But how to absorb the new? Let us quote from Fassbinder’s favourite philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer: “The present has two halves: an objective and a subjective. The objective half alone has the intuition of time as its form and thus streams irresistibly away; the subjective half stands firm and thus is always the same.” In Katzelmacher the two halves seem to be represented in the form: the objective stillness of the frame; the subjective possibilities in the tracking shot: here the parametric form Bordwell comments upon finds its correlative within a loosely philosophical problem; a problem that is evident in the Karsunke quote. What happens if the objective half doesn’t allow for the possibility of the new; if the patterns of behaviour are so static that a character would finally rather stay as they are rather than change as they would wish to?

Numerous shots in the film show the characters sitting on the wall, with some characters coming into the frame; others leaving. They serve it seems as the antithesis to the travelling shots both in form and content. Both the fixed frame wall shots and the travelling shots are adjacent: they consist of characters speaking to each other not vis-a-vis each other but next to each other. This is the tableau vivant aspect critics often talk about in Fassbinder’s work: but of course adjacency needn’t result in the tableau. In the wall sequences it does; in the tracking scenes it doesn’t. The former indicates the self-oppression within the characters that is also within the frame; the latter the possibility of expression within movement. This is the sort of inventiveness of form that obviously numerous other filmmakers have offered without remotely falling into the parametric demands of the Bordwellian; films like The Wizard of Oz, A Matter of Life and Death and Pleasantville. These are all films that play with the meaning of the diegetic in relation to the non diegesis: films that tell a story whilst utilising that understanding the story requires accepting a formal dimension that impacts on it. In each instance the black and white represents one element of the world they are in, colour another; so in The Wizard of Oz, for example, Kansas is in black and white and the world Dorothy is whisked away to is in colour.  Such usage causes us no interpretive problems: one knows exactly why the filmmaker chooses the visual palette offered. Yet there are other films where the combination makes hermeneutic demands: Oshima’s The Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Shonen, If…., perhaps Godard’s Eloge de L’amour. If one were to ask why did Powell and Pressburger use black and white in some of the scenes in Matter of Life and Death, the answer is straightforward: to differentiate between black and white heaven and colour earth. But if we were to ask why Oshima does it, or Anderson, we cannot answer it within the context of the diegesis. It doesn’t make sense. We must intuit sense within it.

Now such an approach to colour in Oshima et al’s work is interesting because few viewers will be oblivious to the formal shifts from colour to black and white: it is formal obviousness within the inexplicable. Nobody can avoid noticing it, but few will be able to ‘understand’ it. In Pleasantville etc. it is equally noticeable, but also readily comprehensible. However it is entirely possible within a parametric approach to film, where the non-diegetic intrudes on the diegesis through formal shot choices, that we’ll be much more inclined to miss it, or at the very least be delayed in our response to the devices utilised. In this sense, Katzelmacher will offer a doubly troublesome hermeneutic. On the one hand, in relation to perception; on the other in relation to meaning. We usually know instantly that a film has moved into colour or black and white or vice versa, but would be less likely to notice a set of formal shot choices. It explains how one often gets students asking why a film moves into colour, but rather less often why a director chose to move the camera in a certain manner, or not to move it at all. Colour shifts are amongst the most recognisable dimensions of film perception, so much more than camera movement or for that matter sound. Though there are obviously degrees, perhaps we can talk about parametric visibility and parametric invisibility; the degree to which the film absorbs the form into the story, or counters it.

Now if Fassbinder were interested in more categorical notions of optimism and pessimism, he would perhaps have demanded a more categorical form in which to contain them: monochrome for most of the film; colour for the sequences where characters walk through the streets. However this would be to offer a schematism that is contrary to the life of Fassbinder’s films. James Franklin in New German Cinema says “as is true of Werner Herzog, Fassbinder’s films are his life”, and Franklin quotes Fassbinder saying, “I make films because they affect me personally and for no other reason,” and thus what is finally more interesting is to look not for parametric consistency, but how the parametric creates a type of narrative than needn’t be consistent with the demands of realism. When Fassbinder insisted after making Love is Colder than Death that “in my films there shouldn’t be feelings people have absorbed. The films should create new ones instead”, we might wonder how these new feelings could be created. It is not the parametric in itself that generates the new feelings, but the manner in which the real is filmed, to produce a formal patterning which calls that reality into question. “It is very simple,” Fassbinder said, speaking in the book Film Forum, “I think the frame is like life. Life, too, offers only certain possibilities. Film is like a square of life; it has the same boundaries, but I think film is more honest, because it admits that it is limited space. That’s why it is a bigger lie than film.”

Yet of course many films exacerbate the lie: they give the impression that cinema is like life but even better, offering even more privileged access (think of all the shots in film that do not at all proximate the human eye but suggest an omniscient perspective), and conclusions happier and more resolved than many in our own lives. Fassbinder is interested if you like in a parametric pessimism, a mode of framing that draws out an aspect of existence all the better to question it. The parametric form isn’t an end in itself, but a mode of enquiry into reality. To explain further we can think of the scene where the Greek immigrant Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself) comes into a cafe with the couple he is renting a room from, and sitting at the next table are some of the friends of the couple. Fassbinder shows the three characters walking into a fixed frame medium long shot and sitting down. The friends start singing a racist song, and a conversation takes place between the characters whilst the camera remains fixed. At the end of the argument, the three characters get up and leave. There is little here to suggest the naturalistic, yet Fassbinder insists he is interested in reality. But his is a paradoxical reality where it is only by reframing the real that we can get closer to the problems it throws up. Such a scene offers the potential for righteousness, but it is the very framing and positioning that refuses its possibility. Fassbinder doesn’t want us to identify with Jorgos and his hosts; more to reflect on the situation. Now an insistence on viewing the film formally might allow us to see the social situation as very much secondary to the formalist dimension, while a naturalistic approach would then deny the ideological good faith Fassbinder demands of his work. As Jorgos and his landlords get up and leave, they do so less with the righteous insistence that enough is enough, but with a hint of stage direction that demands it is now time to leave the frame. The characters are halfway between people leaving an awkward situation, and characters exiting stage right. It is as if the very tension Fassbinder seeks is in this combination of formalist awareness and the realist problematic, and it is out of combining the two that new feelings can come. We can’t settle into the righteous response; nor can we quite see the characters as formal components of an aesthetic schema.

One of the problems we might have with a parametric take on film courtesy of writers like David Bordwell and Noel Burch, is that this type of tension is in danger of being lost because we accept the formal dimension takes precedence over the narrational, and the life of the film gives way to the viewer seeking formal patterning. Obviously in many films it is precisely the reverse: and how often do we hear that a good film is one in which we are not aware of the editing, the camerawork, the music etc? Hence the film proves invisible; yet in the parametric the form becomes visible and it is the viewer’s purpose to bring out that visibility, a form surprising to us not least because we are so used to films playing much more on the invisibility of this form. When Burch says in Theory of Film Practice, that a film must be “organically coherent” and “rigorous in every respect”, or when Bordwell insists that a parametric film like Pickpocket creates “a sense of an order whose finest grain we can glimpse but not grasp helps produce the connotative effects of which thematic criticism records the trace”, the latter adds, “these effects arise from a formal manipulation that is, in a strong sense, non-signifying – closer to music than to the novel.” (Narration in the Fiction Film) This would seem to chime precisely with some of Fassbinder’s own statements. In Film Forum he says, “I want to try and make a kind of film that doesn’t carry an idea or the idea of a story like a traditional novel or a traditional theatre piece. I want to find a new kind of film. Simply said, a kind of film that is like music…”

Should we just accept pragmatically that the german director utilises character and narration because he has little choice, taking into account our earlier comments on the business side of Fassbinder; dogmatically insist in the films as formalist works; or do we believe that what matters is the specific type of tension between form and content: that Fassbinder’s purpose resides in being a narrative filmmaker but also fascinated by the possibilities in subverting story, and consequently creating in us the complex feeling he so often claimed to be searching out? Fassbinder’s formalism isn’t so much parametric as defamiliarised, as though the former doesn’t create an affective problem but searches out a formalist solution, while the latter accepts the narrative norms that need to be countered to create in the viewer a certain estrangement. If one too readily creates a formal patterning out of this estranged feeling, then the disturbance of the text gives way to the mathematical precision of the work. As Bordwell says, “one does not think of Fassbinder as an ascetic filmmaker, yet his Katzelmacher (1969) exemplifies how the sparse approach can produce slight variations. By reducing the number and types of setting, the angle of view (perpendicular, with few depth cues), the number of shots (one per scene), character movements (typically a tableau), shot transitions (the cut only), and camera movements (none except as noted below), Katzelmacher creates a sparse intrinsic norm”. Are we not closer here though to technical drawing than ideological assault?

Yet Fassbinder’s films are ideological assaults, as though he wanted to find a form that would simultaneously capture the problem of being with others on three levels: the social, the professional and the formal; through the diegetic exploration of situation and character within the film, through the means and methods of making them with an ensemble, and in working with and against an audience that comes to see the work. This threefold investigation means that the formal is only one aspect of Fassbinder’s enquiry; where what is interesting about his work is the manner in which he wants to enquire into the limitations of the social yet suggest the possibilities in the world. His films chime with a comment from the critic Serge Daney when he says that through cinephilia he wanted to inhabit the world. “Never society”, he insists. “From society only horrible things are to be expected.” Fassbinder’s work, from The Merchant of Four Seasons to Fox and his Friends from Fear Eats the Soul to Lola, wants to suggest the possibilities in the world but the limitations of society. As Thomsen says of The Merchant of Four Seasons, “the film is constantly stylized, often to such a degree that individual scenes are expanded and become an archetypal expression of the petit bourgeois way of life, which the film illuminates critically.” Fassbinder may always have had an ambiguous relationship with society, saying while he rejects society, he also “fought for recognition within that society” (Fassbinder), but the struggle is constantly present in form and content.

Thus Fassbinder’s films are much more socially oriented than those of other New German Cinema directors like Wenders and Herzog, yet at the same time they are also the most critical, and few more critical than Katzelmacher. It is as though taking into account our Schopenhauer quote and the Daney remark, what he wanted to do was find a form that would consistently critique society and hint at the possibilities in the world. Fassbinder’s prolific work seemed almost to be creating a society out of their very production and distribution, a hegemonic onslaught trying to counter the overarching ideology of conformity, with an aesthetics of caustic social enquiry. To illustrate this point, let us think of a couple of scenes that indicate an acerbic attitude to society, while hinting at the possibilities in the world. These are the two brief scenes immediately following the one quoted above where the characters insult each other in the cafe. In the first, the landlady and her partner sit at the kitchen table and discuss Jorgos, as the partner insists that she’s been sleeping with him. The body language of each indicates hardly intimacy on their part, so why shouldn’t she look for affection elsewhere? Fassbinder frames the scene for the maximum amount of moral indignation and the minimal amount of emotional expression. The following scene is the opposite: with one of the other women in the group, Marie (played by the great Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla) sitting on a bench with Jorgos, with Marie resting her head on Jorgos’s shoulder as they talk of people’s harshness and cruelty. The softness of the scene seems exacerbated by Jorgos’s broken German, as he hesitantly explains his feelings to Marie.

A more formally inclined film critic might wonder where such a sensitive scene fits into the aesthetics of a work that seems to indicate cramped expectation in the fixity of the frame, and the possibilities of hope in the occasional dolly shot. But even though we proposed that Schopenhauer’s comment about the objective and the subjective and the fixed frame and the tracking shots are loosely correlative to these states, what counts more than the formalist endeavour is the social critique, a sense that Fassbinder needed to find a method within which the film wouldn’t fold into the conventions of realism, and where we would be critical of the characters but would hardly be critical of the form. Our condescension would be comfortably ensconced within formal convention. Yet when Fassbinder says “in the theatre I always directed as if it were a film, and then shot the films as if it were theatre”, it is as though he wanted to make cinema not as formal endeavour, but as an emotional reconfiguration. If the theatre is about live presence within the stillness of the proscenium frame, and the cinema about a moving frame that allows far greater realism into the art form whilst accepting the absence of an actual living presence, so Fassbinder gives us the dead frame that exacerbates the absence of the actors as living within the cinematic world: they are essentially fixed in time past, not alive in time present. We might not know exactly what we expect the camera to do when we watch a film (taking into account our comments about the camera above) but we perhaps expect it to find the means and methods to compensate us for the absence of the live performance. When André Bazin says “if it is here [in the physical presence of the actor] that the essence of the theatre lies then undoubtedly the cinema can in no way pretend to any parallel with it” (‘Theatre and Cinema Part Two’), so consequently many films try to find correlatives to the living thespian presence on stage, through the spatial freedom that theatre cannot match. However, Fassbinder does not want us to lose ourselves in the cinematic, but find ourselves within it: find ourselves questioning the means and methods he has adopted to create the space for critique. Braad Thomsen, perhaps consequently, described Fassbinder as a Socratic artist, “who uncovers how the existing possibilities of living have failed and points out that change is necessary.” This uncovering incorporates the difficulty of living together, the demands of monetary need, the wish for a better existence, and the limitations placed upon us when we accept too readily the social terms and not enough the possibilities in the world. Fassbinder’s film isn’t especially a parametric work but a paradoxical one: a film that hems its characters in except for a handful of brief camera movements, but not to tell us that society is all we have, but the world is worthy of our yearning, even as society eats away at its likelihood. It is the subjective world trying to eat into the objective society, trying to find a means with which new feelings can grow and a new society be created, one where Fassbinder needn’t have worked himself to death at the horribly young age of 37, trying, it seemed, to achieve status and avoid loneliness.


©Tony McKibbin